November 08, 2023
Tartan Takes Flight
CMU alumna and pilot Janet Marnane made history as one of the first women officers serving aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier
By Ann Lyon Ritchie
Carnegie Mellon University Class of 1980 alumna Janet Marnane knew she could have been happy in a research career using her Mellon College of Science chemistry degree.
There was just one problem: She really wanted to fly fighter jets.
“They were accepting women into the military academies when I graduated from high school, but what they were offering was not what I wanted to do,” Janet says. “I’d always been interested in aviation.”
She finally saw her opportunity when a U.S. Navy recruiter showed her F-14 Tomcat aviator videos.
Lucky for her, a few years before her CMU graduation, the Navy opened the Flight Officer Program for jets.
Women were not yet allowed on aircraft carriers, but she still dreamed.
“In the CMU dorm, I lived on the floor with people from Ecuador, Pakistan and Iran and had roommates from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. I didn’t think about diversity when I chose to go to CMU, but it was very cool to have that experience. It helped when I went into the military because people come from all over, all walks of life, all backgrounds.”
Earning Her Wings
In 1980, the Navy offered six openings nationwide to women interested in flight officer training school.
“I thought I didn’t have a chance,” Janet says.
She applied — one of 23 applications in her region alone. But as one of five children growing up on a farm near Stamford, New York, Janet was used to competition.
Months later, she was accepted into the 14-week program and moved to Pensacola, Florida.
“I was good at it,” Janet says. “It was like drinking from a fire hose, but I had already been through that at Carnegie Mellon. Plus, it was something I really, really wanted to do.”
After completing flight officer training school, Janet joined a training squadron and completed electronic warfare training. She learned how to operate the jet systems with a fleet replacement squadron. Finally, she was assigned to her first fleet squadron, Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron Thirty-four (VAQ-34) with the mission of simulating enemy tactics for their own fleet’s training.
She says CMU had prepared her for the military experience in several ways. A member of the swim team, Janet was already fit and “aced the swim test” when she joined. She also valued diversity.
“In the CMU dorm, I lived on the floor with people from Ecuador, Pakistan and Iran and had roommates from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia,” Janet says. “I didn’t think about diversity when I chose to go to CMU, but it was very cool to have that experience. It helped when I went into the military because people come from all over, all walks of life, all backgrounds.”
“I never went in thinking they were going to give me a hard time because I was a woman. I went in thinking I’m going to go in and kick butt, so that they couldn’t say, ‘Oh, you’re just here because you’re a woman.’”
Upward and Onward
Throughout Janet’s military career that spanned 25 years, women increasingly joined the Navy’s ranks. Only two other women were in her first squadron, but it grew to about 10 women before she left in 1988. She met even more later.
In 1993, Janet received a call that the first two aircraft carriers were going to sea with women, and the air wing commander wanted her to join his staff. Janet became the first female officer to report to a carrier air group.
“I never went in thinking they were going to give me a hard time because I was a woman,” Janet says. “I went in thinking I’m going to go in and kick butt, so that they couldn’t say, ‘Oh, you’re just here because you’re a woman.’”
For six months leading up to the launch, she led plans to accommodate women in the berths. It was a difficult challenge.
“I had detractors, but I also had champions,” Janet says. “Occasionally someone didn’t want me there because I was female. I had instructors and other people with whom I flew who insisted I get what I wanted because I deserved it.”
Once the carrier was at sea, Janet lived her dream to the fullest.
“Being on the air wing staff, I flew with all of the squadrons: the F-14, EA-6B, S-3 and E-2,” Janet says. “If you’ve seen ‘Top Gun,’ I’m Goose. I was either in the right seat or back seat doing the communications and the navigation, basically like a co-pilot.”
During her military career, Janet rose to the rank of commander and served as an executive officer.
After retiring from active duty in 2006, she taught a variety of aviation-related subjects in the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, until retiring for good, or at least for now, in 2021.
“It has been a real honor to help break through some of the glass in the ceiling, as well as help teach and mentor not only future naval officers but also women in all aspects of aviation,” Janet says.
“Women still make up a very small portion of the aviation world, so to be seen as a role model was a responsibility I took very seriously. I’m happy to say I stay in touch with many of my former midshipmen and students, and the future is in very capable hands.”